Monday, July 28, 2008

Middle-aged fanboy goes wild

I didn’t get in to see the Watchmen panel at Comic-Con in San Diego; the room was full two hours before that event began. Nor did I see the presentation for Frank Miller’s movie adaptation of Eisner’s The Spirit. This kind of heartache often occurs when you press tens of thousands of geeks into a single convention center. However, I did have a great time last week. And quite a few things got my heart pounding. Among them…

* At a panel commemorating the 75th anniversary of Doc Savage, comic book guru and movie producer Michael Uslan announced that a film about Clark Savage, Jr., is definitely in the works.

* Now 59, Lindsay Wagner (the real Bionic Woman) still elevates my pulse.

* I spent ten minutes or so talking with the great Jim Steranko, trying not to blubber like a schoolboy. He told me that Dark Horse plans to re-issue his 1970s graphic noir novel Chandler next year — fantastic news for Steranko junkies.

* In chatting with Blake Bell, author of the terrific new Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, I learned that Fantagraphics hopes to start issuing new compilations of Ditko’s otherwise uncollected works by next summer. Bell hosted, back to back, a fascinating panel on Ditko and a screening of a highly entertaining 2007 BBC special, In Search of Steve Ditko.

* Joss Whedon’s new Fox series, Dollhouse, debuts next January. Joss was at Comic-Con with series star Eliza Dushku (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tru Calling) and the show looks fantastic.

* Now 58, Erin Gray (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) still elevates my pulse.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gone to San Diego for Comic-Con

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

2008 Prometheus Awards announced

The Libertarian Futurist Society has released the names of this year’s winners of the Prometheus Awards — two full weeks before their presentation at Denvention 3, the 66th World Science Fiction Convention in Denver (August 6-10).

The Best Novel award will go to two novels this year, marking the first time in the award’s 29-year history that there was a tie in the voting. Both novels are alternative histories and sequels: Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator and Jo Walton’s Ha’penny.

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, is winner of the 2008 Hall of Fame award.

The Prometheus Award, says the LFS, "is given each year to sci-fi/fantasy that explores the possibilities of a free future, champions human rights, dramatizes the perennial conflict between individuals and coercive governments, or critiques the tragic consequences of abuse of power."

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Monday, July 21, 2008

We displease a neighbor

Deb and I spotted our neighbor Linda studying our front yard on Saturday.

“You guys have been busy,” she said. She didn’t look overly pleased.

“Yeah, and you should see the back yard,” I said. “It’s even nicer.”

Five weeks ago, we began a systematic demolition and reconstruction of our yards, front and back. We tore out trees, bushes, and hedges, then mulched them up with a wood-chipper. Then we replaced everything with plant life indigenous to the area — drought-resistant, low-maintenance stuff. We added a creek bed in the front yard that will siphon the rainwater from our gutters to the new trees we’ve planted. We created natural pathways through both yards. We placed flagstone in a few areas to create quiet spots for reading, meditation, wine drinking, and (for me) cigar smoking.

I’m sure Linda has no problem with any of that.

I suspect what’s suppressing her enthusiasm for our yards, particularly our front yard, is what’s missing.

What’s missing is lawn. You know, the stuff that every California homeowner is expected to have, the lush expanses of thick green carpet that provide a playground for giggling children and bouncing dogs.

We’ve got none of that now. Oh, we did have lawns, until five weeks ago. But our lawns were seldom green. Instead, they sported gopher holes, brown patches where our dog Cheyenne peed, and badass little mites that darted around your bare ankles during summer.

And we were forever watering the goddamn lawns. “Give them at least 45 minutes of water, every other day,” a friend once advised me. “That’ll keep ’em nice and green.” So I did that, diligently. But dead patches still cropped up, and the water bill skyrocketed. “These lawns need to be properly aerated,” my friend told me then. “If you’ve got some old golf shoes, ones with metal cleats, put those on and walk all over the lawns. They’ll love you for it. And you might want to buy some lawn fertilizer, too.” Screw all that. After ten years — ten friggin’ years — I was done.

So our new yard construction has, from the get-go, been built around a “no lawns” rule. In another week or so, our yards won’t look anything like any other in our neighborhood. While Ed, and Tom, and Jerry, and, yes, Linda either mow their own grass or pay someone to mow it for them, Deb and I will sit meditatively on one of our patios, nursing glasses of merlot.

So what if we don’t fit in with the rest of the neighbors?

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Overwhelmed by THE DARK KNIGHT

I’ve really got very little unique to say about The Dark Knight. It’s all being said elsewhere. Deb and I saw it yesterday afternoon. Then I needed a long nap. It’s exhausting. It’s grim, it’s downbeat, it’s scary, it’s unpredictable. Two months ago, I wrote here that Iron Man is one of the best comic book superhero movies ever. I could probably say the same thing about The Dark Knight, except this is less a comic book superhero movie than it is a sweeping noir crime epic. It’s tragic on an operatic scale. There are layers and layers of things to peel away and discuss about The Dark Knight. Right now, I’m just not up to the challenge. I don’t think I can do the movie justice.

But I just knew I had to check in before people started asking me about it.

See the goddamn thing. Just see it.

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Reality strikes the Obama campaign

Thanks for the idea, Brad.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

If you can't get enough of the Dark Knight...

To coincide with The Dark Knight, which opens tomorrow, a lot of new Batman merchandise, both good and bad, has been released to stores over the past couple of weeks. Here’s what I think is the Good Stuff.

The first nine issues of Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder have been collected into a nice, hardcover “Volume 1.” This “monthly” comic launched in 2005 and has been plagued by constant delays (only a single issue was released in 2006) and miserable reviews. Just about everybody seems to hate it, complaining that Miller’s portrayal of Batman is too hard, unflattering, and inappropriate. Personally, I see the series as a natural fit with other entries in Miller’s alternative Dark Knight Universe (Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Dark Knight Strikes Again). Sure, this comic is tough. It’s shocking. It’s uncomfortable. But I’ve never expected anything less from Frank Miller. And Jim Lee’s artwork is exquisite. I just hope another three years don’t pass before we see Volume 2.

On the DVD front, DC Comics’ third direct-to-DVD entry is Batman: Gotham Knight. It’s an interesting though very disjointed 75-minute, anime-style movie made up of six separate episodes by three screenwriters and a half-dozen Japanese animators. It’s supposed to fall into Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie universe, somewhere between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. But even with two viewings under my belt (admittedly, I was listening to the feature-length commentary when I watched it the second time), I don’t really “get it.” The six episodes are too loosely linked for my taste, and the film meanders in all directions. And none of this is helped by the fact that Batman and other recurring characters are drawn differently in each chapter. The only element that really ties everything together is Kevin Conroy, who reprises his voiceover role as Batman from the old Bruce Timm cartoon series. Despite all this, the movie looks cool, it’s never boring, and the two-disc DVD set includes a very nice, 45-minute documentary about Batman creator Bob Kane. Batman: Gotham Knight isn’t essential for fans, but it’s worth checking out if you’re among the hardest of hardcore Batman fanatics, like me.

Also available is the fifth complete season (13 episodes) of The Batman from the Kids’ WB. Again, this is something a lot of Batman fans seem to dislike. But I’ve enjoyed the series from its debut in 2004, even though it’s never reached the heights of Bruce Timm’s cartoons from the 1990s. Just as Batgirl was introduced in the third season and Robin in the fourth, this fifth bunch of shows is highlighted by the appearance of other DC heroes, including Superman, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Flash — in other words, the Justice League. My only reservation about this particular string of episodes is that Batman, notoriously the grim loner, is presented as the great team-builder. But that’s not too big a deal. This is a fun set of cartoons.

Finally, much to my delight, the WB’s short-lived revisionist TV take on the Batman mythos from 2002, Birds of Prey, has finally made it to DVD — all 13 episodes, plus the unaired pilot (really just another version of the first episode, with alternative footage and some different casting). This show was a wonderful bit of kickbutt superhero eye-candy, starring Ashley Scott (who later starred in the Jericho TV series), Dina Meyer (the best thing about the original Starship Troopers movie), and Rachel Skarsten. I was a diehard fan of this show when it first aired, and it’s terrific to be able to revisit it. My only disappointment with this DVD set is that a lot of the original music from the program has been replaced due to licensing problems. This includes Aimee Allen’s memorable title theme, “Revolution.” Regardless, I highly recommend Birds of Prey.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Appreciating Steve Ditko

In 1966, when I was just a wee lad of 11, what then seemed a very big honkin’ piece of my world fractured and dropped away. Steve Ditko split from Marvel Comics and forever left behind Doctor Strange and, most horribly, Spider-Man. Neither character has been the same since. And if I may be so bold, neither has ever again been quite as good.

Ditko was the first comic book artist I really paid attention to, and his famous three-part Master Planner story (Amazing Spider-Man #31-33) locked in a diehard fanaticism that remains today. I followed him through his days at Charlton (doing the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and The Question), his brief periods with DC (creating the Creeper and the Hawk and Dove), into those days when you only found his stuff in fanzines like witzend and Guts. Part of Ditko’s magic may have been the mystery surrounding him. He didn’t sit still for interviews. He didn’t rub elbows with fans. As years passed, his work became harder and harder to find. Not until the past few years, when so much old Silver Age material has been collected into beautiful hardcover volumes, have I been able to revisit much of Steve Ditko’s great work.

Now, long overdue in my opinion, here comes Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, an oversized, hardcover appreciation, biography, and analysis by Blake Bell. As soon as this bugger landed on my doorstep, I immersed myself in it. It’s fantastic.

Bell seems to have scraped together every bit of info, every mention he could about Ditko. There are wonderful things here, including a color reproduction (granted, it’s small) of Ditko’s original cover for Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man’s debut in 1962; it was rejected and replaced with a cover by Jack Kirby (though Steve did the inking). Likewise, Ditko’s original cover for Amazing Spider-Man #10, featuring the Enforcers, is presented in this lovely book for, I think, the first time. For 40 years, I’ve wondered why an absolutely horrible, plain-as-vanilla Kirby cover graced that issue. I still don’t have the answer, but at least I’ve now seen Ditko’s terrific version.

One of the things that makes Steve Ditko fascinating to me is his steadfast commitment to his principles and the promotion of those principles, which are rooted in Ayn Rand’s black-and-white Objectivism. Not only did Rand shape almost all of Ditko’s work for the past four decades, her philosophy impacted his career and way of doing business — usually at great cost emotionally and financially. Strange and Stranger, as you’d expect, spends a lot of time in this area. Both the author’s account of this long period and his analysis is really first-rate. It’s really a tragic tale, with the uncompromising Ditko playing a defeated Howard Roark in an industry that never fully understands him. You can’t help but respect Ditko's unflinching determination, but at the same time, you’re frustrated whenever he shoots himself in the foot. For instance, the book reveals that about 15 years ago, Frank Miller approached Ditko with the suggestion that the two of them relaunch Steve’s Mr. A, his seminal Randian hero from the late 1960s. Miller wanted to present the character without concessions to political correctness. In the ’60s, the hard-right Mr. A had struggled in a flower power world. But in the tougher ’90s, an era that embraced Miller’s hardboiled classics like The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City, Mr. A might have become a sensation, catapulting Ditko out of the doldrums and to heights he hadn’t experienced since his old Marvel days. But alas, Ditko declined Miller’s offer, believing that Mr. A just wouldn’t sell.

Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is essential for fans of the great artist. And if you’re a comic book fan unfamiliar with Ditko, this book might just pull you into his camp of devotees.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Your Wednesday moment of political reality

I'll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here.

"I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs."

"I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking."

"Hey, wait a minute, there's one guy holding out both puppets!"

-- Bill Hicks (1961-1994)

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Put on your Sunday clothes and see WALL*E

My birthday was this past weekend, so Deb and three women-friends thought we should celebrate it by seeing WALL*E since, well, Wally is my name, after all, and as far as we know, this film marks the first time in movie and TV history it hasn’t been connected to a fink, a wallflower, a sexually dysfunctional killer, or a best friend to Eddie Haskell.

As animated movies go, WALL*E has one big thing going for it: there are no talking, singing, or dancing animals in it. But it has a lot of other things going for it, too. The animation, as you’d expect from Pixar and Disney, is top-notch. Aimed at a kids’ market, the movie’s dystopian vision is ballsy. And most interestingly, it tells its story largely without dialogue, and it does that so well, you never miss it. With a minimal word count, this little outer space fable manages to be effectively charming, heart-wrenching, and funny. That’s quite an accomplishment.

The critics love WALL*E. So much so that there’s now a backlash, much of it from conservative and right-libertarian corners. The cartoon is anti-progress, they say. It’s anti-business. It’s anti-consumer. Its environmentalism is hogwash. It will only further brainwash children into the Al Gore camp. All those charges may be true. But most of these complaints come from folks who somehow survived the leftist brainwashing of science fiction movies like Soylent Green, Silent Running, and Planet of the Apes three and four decades ago. WALL*E is no more “dangerous” than those films were in their time. Enjoy it for what it is: a smart, clever piece of animated sci-fi.

And after you’ve seen WALL*E, just see if you can stop Michael Crawford from singing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” over and over in your head. I double-dog-dare you.

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Today's required reading

Wendy McElroy may not be as politically optimistic now as she was in 2002, but her speech "The Case for Optimism," made that year, is still required reading. Especially in these Sad Sack days.

And my dear friend Brian Richardson is sitting out his first presidential election this year. His reflections on this decision close with the best three sentences I've read in the past several months, so good that I've made them a sigfile for my email.

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Thomas M. Disch RIP

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Friday, July 04, 2008

"It makes a pretty book"

From the press and just sewn together, it still smelled of ink and smudged as Paine held it in his hands, a thin book called “Common Sense, written by an Englishman,” with big black letters on the cover, sticky as Paine opened it.

“Done,” Bell said.

Paine told him, “I don’t want you to suffer for this,” and Bell shrugged. “I’ll want to buy a few copies,” said Paine.

Bell nodded.

“To show them to my friends.”

“Ye may.”

“You’ll give it to me a little cheaper than the regular price?” Paine remarked, not able to keep a note of anxiety out of his voice, his hand in his pocket, holding all the money he had in the world.

“I may.”

“It makes a pretty book,” said Paine.

Citizen Tom Paine
by Howard Fast
(Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943)

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

New agitprop from Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is marketed as Young Adult fiction. I suppose that makes sense, since its protagonists are all teenagers. But just as Heinlein’s old “juveniles” and even J. Neil Schulman’s Alongside Night are all “adult-friendly” despite their tilt toward a young market, Little Brother is solid, entertaining, and very scary reading for all ages. And it may be the best “libertarian” science fiction novel since Suprynowicz’s The Black Arrow three years ago.

The story is set in the very, very near-future, when Homeland Security has really gone batshit. Marcus and his three best friends ditch school one day and get horribly caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. DHS carts all three of them off to a secret Gitmo-by-the-Bay, where they’re questioned and tortured, but not necessarily in that order. Eventually released, Marcus determines to save one missing chum and take down DHS in the bargain. What follows is 300 pages of techno-geek, teenage revolution, and it’s all pretty damn cool. I’ve heard a couple reviewers complain that the tale occasionally comes to dead stops for computer info dumps. And that’s true, but it didn’t bother me. I think those few moments are actually needed for a full understanding of the action.

Anyway, Doctorow’s characters are generally well defined and appealing. Even some of the adult characters who can’t understand why anyone would refuse to surrender liberty for security are fully drawn and sympathetic. The story is fast-paced and told with passion. There’s no question that the author believes his novel’s warnings are urgent. Radical libertarians like myself will find naïve his traditionalist notion that solutions still lie in the voting booth. But Doctorow’s heart is in the right place, and there’s no question that he’s one of the Good Guys.

My biggest reservation about Little Brother is this: it’s like a hand-grenade. Its life expectancy is short. It will date quickly, and in just a few years, its message may be too late. So my suggestion is that you pick up a copy right now — don’t wait six months or more for a paperback edition — read it quickly, then start passing it down the chain to your kids, their friends, and their friends’ friends.

Little Brother is a handy tool to add to our agitprop arsenals.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

This Friday, fly the Gadsden flag

A piece of mine from six years ago, somehow still appropriate:

"In our town, hundreds of us traditionally lug our picnic hampers, wineglasses, and illegal fireworks to the beach on Independence Day. What we call the Big Stuff, the "official," often disappointing show sanctioned by the city fathers, launches from the pier about 9:00 p.m. An hour earlier, the prohibited pyrotechnics — you might call it the People’s Stuff — begin lighting up the sky spectacularly along the water’s edge for a couple of miles south.

"Not too surprising, the beach is always festooned with U.S. flags fluttering beside the bonfires and barbecues. This year, I expect I’ll see more of them than ever.

"But my little party won’t fly Old Glory this summer. Instead, in response to the political profit Bush, Ashcroft, Daschle, and the rest of our masters now reap from last September, we’ll hoist my polyester Gadsden flag, named for its designer, 'the Sam Adams of South Carolina,' radical-liberal Son of Liberty Christopher Gadsden. What better time than this July 4th – while FBI sentinels comb library records for the reading patterns of 'suspicious' patrons – to let the old rattlesnake banner snap loudly at our beach site?"

Read the entire article here.

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